Have you ever poked a sea anemone? It’s open and fluttering its little tendrils in the brackish water, and then suddenly and without any warning, this stick comes out of nowhere, jabbing into its soft, fleshy bits. The anemone reacts, without thinking – it curls in on itself, pulling tight and protective. After a while, it might send out a few questioning tentacles at a time, searching and seeing if it’s safe again. And when it’s determined that it is safe, it will unfurl again, until the next stick descends.
This is affect at its simplest, an emotive, embodied response to stimulus. It is “the modifications of the body by which the power of acting of the body itself is increased, diminished, helped or hindered, together with the ideas of these modifications.”
Brian Massumi says that affect is relationality, not a self having feelings but a distinctive being in and of the world. This notion of affect gives us a phenomenological
Affect. To affect and be affected. To touch and be touched. To produce a change in something, while a change can concurrently happen in yourself. There is often an attempt to isolate affect as a manifestation of the self, something that is internally regulated. Antonio Damasio says that
You can look at Picasso’s Guernica as intensely as you wish, for as long as you wish, and as emotionally as you wish, but nothing will happen to the painting itself. Your thoughts about it change, of course, but the object remains intact…In the case of feeling, the object itself can be changed radically.
He is saying that because the origin of feeling is internal to the mind, rather than external, the body can act directly upon that perception of feeling. And while this is undoubtedly true, the scenario he describes leaves out one situation, which is that of a person looking intently at another person. That object, the person, is not the static object of a painting, but another moving, breathing, perceiving being, and your own body of perception can act upon them, and they upon you. Affect, then, becomes a part of that interplay, that give and take that exists between us, and binds us to one another.
Affect, then, represents the whole modification of a person, both mentally and physically. It is “not a personal feelings, nor is it a characteristic; it is the effectuation of a power…that throws the self into upheaval and makes it reel.”
Sea anemone’s can live alone, but most often they live grouped together in clusters. When you poke one anemone, it acts and reacts, folding in on itself for protection. And if you watch carefully, you’ll notice that the anemones around it, while perhaps not folding in as dramatically as the poked anemone, will retract their tendrils in reaction, as well.